‘It was amazing’: Doctors see hope in COVID czar’s trust-building maiden speech

Ronni Gamzu, government’s new coronavirus point-man, has rung in the changes, even impressing some vocal critics of state policy. Some of his plans are being questioned, however

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Ronni Gamzu. CEO of Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, cheers an Israeli Air Force acrobatic team flying over Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv on Israel's 72nd Independence Day. April 29, 2020.  (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israel’s new coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu, photographed in April at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, where he is CEO, cheering an Israeli Air Force acrobatic team. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel’s medical profession reverberated with optimism on Tuesday, after the country’s new coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu gave a maiden speech that was hailed as the start of a new relationship between the state and the public.

“I think it was an amazing speech,” enthused epidemiologist Nadav Davidovitch, a leader of Israel’s doctors union and a recent critic of state policy. “His idea of creating a new contract between government and public is exactly what is needed now.”

Davidovitch said he is treating the speech as the launch of a serious program, not as spin. “I don’t think it’s cosmetic,” he said.

Galia Rahav, head of infectious diseases at Israel’s largest hospital, Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, told The Times of Israel that Gamzu gave the address that citizens needed to hear. “He was charismatic and will get the confidence of the public back,” she said.

Screen capture from video of Prof. Galia Rahav head of the Infectious Disease Unit at the Sheba Medical Center. (YouTube)

She added: “To have one man who will be in charge of things and decide things, as opposed to several different groups with horrible confusion, will be an improvement.”

However, Eli Waxman, former head of the National Security Council’s Expert Advisers’ Committee on Combating the Pandemic, who recently said that trying to advise government on coronavirus felt like ‘bashing my head against a brick wall,’ was more circumspect.

Waxman was pleased that Gamzu took two moves that he has been advocating — improving contact tracing and turning to the military — but he told The Times of Israel: “[I] cannot say that I am relieved, at least yet.

“For the IDF to be able to work, authority would need to be transferred, which may require government decisions and possibility legislation. We need to see that this is done.”

Israel’s newly appointed coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, unveils his plan to fight the pandemic, at a press conference on July 28, 2020 (screenshot)

Gamzu, a former Health Ministry chief who is CEO  of Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center, outlined his vision in his televised address. He said he will use his new government post to ensure that the virus is fought effectively but that Israels aren’t subjected to any more restrictions “that lack logic.”

He said he will improve the much-maligned contact tracing process by putting the military in charge, admitting that the Health Ministry hasn’t succeeded and saying that this task is at the “heart” of attempts to stop the pandemic.

Gamzu announced plans for  a “traffic light” system for gauging coronavirus levels in different parts of Israel.

One of his boldest promises was to rebuild public trust. He pledged a “new contract, between the people and the government.”

Davidovitch, chair of public health forum of the Israeli Medical Association and director of the School of Public Health at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. (courtesy of Ben Gurion University)

Davidovitch, chair of public health forum of the Israel Medical Association and director of the School of Public Health at Ben Gurion University of the Negev told The Times of Israel: “The speech was exactly what is needed now, especially its emphasis on being transparent and using proportionate measures.

“He asked for public trust, and this was important. It is exactly what he did during the silent polio epidemic of 2013 and 2014, when he appealed for solidarity and increased understanding of public health.” Gamzu was Health Ministry director-general during this polio outbreak, which was fought successfully.

Cyrille Cohen, a leading immunologist, said he thinks that Gamzu “is pushing the ‘reset’ button.”

He commented: “People are confused and do not trust decision makers, thus, I think it is good to hit the ‘reset’ button. I just hope it is not too late because we do see a rise in patients in critical condition, and some hospitals are now approaching maximum capacity.”

Cohen, head of the immunotherapy laboratory at Bar Ilan University and a member of a Health Ministry advisory committee that deals with coronavirus vaccines, said that with public confidence “eroded,” a “clean slate” is needed.

Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunotherapy laboratory at Bar Ilan University. (courtesy of Cyrille Cohen)

Cohen believes that the decision to move contact tracing to the military is important because, performed well, it harnesses the power of testing, by ensuring that when someone tests positive, people who encountered them are promptly quarantined. The Health Ministry has lacked capacity to do this for many patients, but Cohen is hopeful that the military will succeed.

Davidovitch said that one of the most important aspects of Gamzu’s outlook is his belief in putting more authority in the hands of local municipalities.“He will give more power to local municipalities, which makes sense because you can’t deal with Israel as one unit, you need to be more sophisticated,” Davidovitch commented.

He said that while authority is being consolidated under Gamzu, he actually expects lots of delegation and devolution of responsibility to various government and non-government players in order to manage the crisis effectively. “Though it sounds like it’s the opposite, this will actually be about decentralizing,” he predicted.

Cohen said that despite his enthusiasm for the speech, he thinks the traffic light system will be “very difficult to implement,” and that Gamzu is wrong in his determination to open schools, as planned, on September 1.

School children wearing protective face masks preparing to go back to school, May 16, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Cohen commented: “This is something I think we will probably need to postpone because we know that this was one of our main mistakes two months ago, and thus I tend to disagree with the reopening.

“At most, we should allow only grade one to three, and for the rest we should wait. It will be practically impossible to lower the contamination rate by September 1, so we shouldn’t repeat the mistake of opening schools.”

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